Instrumentals [Type Reissue]
, August 22nd, 2011 14:58
Although Clams Casino's excellent Instrumental Mixtape first appeared in spring of this year as a free-to-circulate zip file, its swanky coloured vinyl reissue on Type screams out for more attention. Not that it was exactly lacking for love when it first emerged: sizeable proportions of the (admittedly pretty niche) music-loving internet were quick to heap praise on Clams' translucent hip-hop instrumentals, and subsequent online mixes and a 12" on Tri Angle have swiftly snared him a growing audience. But what's been interesting is how its release immediately made his instrumentals themselves the focal point of attention. Where beforehand they served largely as anonymous, wispy backing tracks for the likes of 'BasedGod' Lil B (including the stunning, not-included-here 'I'm God'), Main Attrakionz and Soulja Boy, outside of a vocal context they were revealed as intricate enough to stand alone in their own right.
So this physical release, under the clipped title Instrumentals, feels like an appropriate gesture. The sheer volume of music given away online ensures that people rarely listen to even half of the free material they download, simply because it's so easy to lose individual droplets in the deluge. So although only a fraction of listeners will end up actually buying it (not least thanks to the fact that its vinyl release is on quite a limited run), its very presence on Type - alongside the likes of Grouper, Peter Broderick and Richard Skelton - ought to ensure it gleans interest from an audience that might not usually pick up on an underground hip-hop record. Which, in the context of the music itself, is no bad thing; that a label whose tastes run right into post-classical modern composition have seen fit to put out Clams Casino speaks volumes about his potential for wider appeal.
Though having said all of that, there's something so delightfully internetty about Clams' music that to impose any degree of physical permanence upon it seems something of a contradiction. His closest contemporaries, both sonically and in terms of methodology, aren't fellow hip-hop producers - they're web-age bedroom producers like Laurel Halo, Dan Lopatin, Hype Williams and Maria Minerva, those constructing almost dizzyingly referential tracks out of complex meshes of samples and analogue and digital sound sources. Listening to a Clams Casino track is a similar experience to listening to a Hype Williams track, in that recognisable fragments of sampled vocal occasionally lurch to the surface of the mix for a second or two before vanishing - or remain half-cloaked in the background throughout, like the spectral presence of Photek's 'Kanei' lurking in Hype's recent 'Rise Up'. And like Hype's music, Clams' instrumentals sound ephemeral and peculiarly of this moment, phantom aggregations of mood and sound that coalesce for brief periods of time before potentially disengaging at some undisclosed point in the future. That analysis feels even more fitting given Clams himself, a bedroom producer who sends his tracks out via email to potential vocalists, then frequently loses track of where they've travelled until they emerge into the public eye complete with MC chatter. His connection with Lil B further fuels his status as a post-Web 2.0 producer; B has a reputation for remaining almost constantly online, interacting with the outside world via social networks and an ongoing stream of musical content.
Similarly to the likes of Halo and Lopatin, Clams' music is predominantly made up of synth: huge, rippling curtains of the stuff, with the contradictory property of sounding simultaneously impenetrably dense and almost totally weightless. Opener 'Motivation' explodes into action in peaking-in-the-red mode, its droning bursts of sub-bass distorting into a grainy haze as they hit full volume. Despite its colossal force, though, its physical impact is unexpectedly soothing, a balmy wash like standing waist-deep in tropical seawater. That's largely to do with the way that every available frequency is packed with something, even if only a growling undertow of white noise. The usual sources of abrasive, barbed sound - worming synth leads, snare hits, vocal samples - are cushioned and contained within a protective bubble of sonic interference. The overall effect is somewhat akin to listening through thick, viscous fluid. The previously unreleased, un-vocalled 'Numb' is a particularly good example, its androgynous voices, pitched in any number of different directions, arriving at the ear elongated into trailing siren songs.
Clams' sampling style is equally distinctive. While underneath the layers of superheated distortion his basic approach doesn't differ hugely from one common throughout hip-hop - taking short loops and extrapolating them to infinity - he uses almost entirely vocals, which he cut to pieces and allows to duck and dive in and out of audible range. On 'Illest Alive', a short snippet of Bjork's 'Bachelorette' looms to the surface and clips sharply, before reducing to wordless drift again. His treatment of distinctive voices - Bjork, Janelle Monáe on 'Cold War' - is reverent to the mood of the originals but unafraid to break them apart into constituent chunks to use as building blocks. However, while most tracks feature some human vocal presence, most of Clams' characters are anonymous, lonely and wordless, again in keeping with his tracks' webby, information overloaded feel.
This approach to track construction and sampling bears dwelling upon - though last year's short lived burst of interest in what was foolishly labeled 'witch house' (the gothic connection in most of it was tenuous to say the least, and it had fuck all to do with house) aimed to work within similar sonic boundaries, what's striking about Clams' music is how much more proficient it sounds. In fact, the thoughtful approach, attentiveness and depth of Instrumentals shows up many of that non-genre's key proponents as only shallowly engaging with their source material. Where Salem's attempts at dirty south hip-hop sounded forced and half-formed, even Clams Casino's baggiest tunes show an intrinsic understanding of their need for functionality as a backing track (even as, packed with detail, they transcend the need for an MC).
That said, unlike his more recent Rainforest EP on Tri Angle, which showcased some of his less tightly structured productions, the tracks on Instrumentals are far more closely linked to their original purpose as tools for MCs. Its final two tracks are its sparsest and most rhythmically immediate - the low slung beat and bass bulbs of 'She's Hot'; 'Cold War', where a stanza from Monae is left to run for a full three minutes, only occasionally tampered with. While quite some distance from the heaving columns of sound that make up the majority of the record, both are strong reminders that, despite their ghostly aura and presence on Type, these tracks remain intrinsically linked to the MCs that originally vocalled them. Listening to the instrumental and vocal takes back to back, the fact they work equally well in either role is testament to the versatility and subtlety of their construction.